International Flavours: Why Geneva Is Heaven For Food Lovers

International Flavours: Why Geneva Is Heaven For Food Lovers

Forget what you think you know about Swiss food; Geneva’s new breed of restaurant is pairing international flavours with creative ambition. Anna Hart visits the city’s most exciting kitchens

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satisfied travellers return from Geneva, they evangelise about two things: the sheer
gorgeousness of this mountain-flanked lakeside city curled around
Lake Geneva, and the dazzling diversity of the food scene here.
First-time visitors expecting an elegant but somewhat stuffy city
built on banking and big NGOs are invariably astonished by the
energetic, open-minded and multicultural spirit of Geneva, but,
according to chef Walter el Nagar, this shouldn’t really come as a

“Perhaps some people associate Geneva with exclusive five-star
hotels and formal restaurants with fussy and traditional menus,”
says el Nagar, speaking in the open kitchen of his year-old (opened
January 2022) restaurant Refettorio Geneva. “This isn’t what Geneva
means to me – Geneva has always been a city of diplomacy, peace,
science, humanitarianism and community.”

Walter el Nagar, chef at Refettorio Geneva
A table at Refettorio, Geneva

Chef Walter el Nagar, left, of Refettorio Geneva.

El Nagar was born in Milan to an Egyptian father and Italian
mother, and initially moved to Geneva to run the restaurant at the
The Ritz-Carlton hotel. Good things grow out of career crises, and
Refettorio is the concept restaurant that grew out of el Nagar’s
disillusionment with the high-waste, high-price and high-stress
culture of many high-end restaurants. At Refettorio, the lunchtime
diners pay for the meals of dinnertime diners in need; a radical
business model for a restaurant, even before we hear about
Refettorio’s scholarship programme, rigorous zero-waste policy and
fermentation workshops. “Nothing makes it into the bin,” says el
Nagar. “We’re trying to present a new economical model, with the
same standards as high-end restaurants.” And, indeed, the
vegetarian £32 set menu is a high-concept gastronomical adventure,
with a starter of green tomato, feta snow and condiments, main of
sweet potato gnocchi with a cheese emulsion, and Jerusalem
artichoke-based dessert with berries. “We’re taking high gastronomy
out of formal restaurants and bringing it into a completely
different environment,” says el Nagar.

Refettorio offers a high-concept gastronomical

For el Nagar, Geneva is the perfect home for a chef intent on
radical experimentation. After all, Geneva – capital of the
French-speaking canton of Switzerland – has been known as a
progressive and ideas-driven city for centuries: the influential
Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born here, as
was humanitarian Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross. And today,
the city serves as HQ for over 200 international organisations, a
unique trait that has fostered a one-of-a-kind urban culinary

Geneva’s international flavour is easily savoured with a walk
around the multicultural neighbourhood of Pâquis, lined with
Lebanese and Ethiopian restaurants like the much-loved Parfums de
and Awash. Over the course of our stay in Geneva, chefs at
Michelin-starred restaurants enthusiastically steer us towards
Pâquis; in Geneva, food lovers get as excited about a new Peruvian,
Eritrean or Syrian street-food stand as they do about a tasting

“But international inspiration is just part of the picture,”
says Venezuelan-born young chef Andres Arocena, at his new
restaurant La
, in the former harbour district of Eaux-Vives. “Of
course it’s thrilling to be able to try food and ingredients from
all over the world. But Geneva’s dining scene is also driven by
discerning, demanding, sophisticated diners. They’ll support a good
idea, but if you don’t impress, there are no second chances here.”
Arocena has no need to worry. Schooled in the most mind-bendingly
creative restaurants in San Sebastián, his five-course, £100
degustation menu is a playful and memorable triumph, with
deconstructed savoury dishes such as “not quite paella”, an
elevated poached egg creation called “oeuf 63°C”, and a delightful
deconstructed chocolate dessert named “lunar stones”.

As we eat our way around Geneva, it’s clear that chefs view the
city as something of a culinary playground, where creativity is
appreciated, ambition nurtured and hard work rewarded.

“I’m a lucky man to be working in Switzerland,” says French chef
Olivier Jean, as we sit in the light-filled salon of Le Jardinier,
a new plant-forward farm-to-table restaurant in lakeside hotel The
Woodward; there are already successful Le Jardinier restaurants in
New York, Miami and Houston. “As a farm-to-table restaurant, we try
to source everything from within a 150km radius, but I’m spoilt in
Geneva. We have a vast variety of cheeses – far beyond the classic
Gruyère. The lake is an abundant source of fish, such as perch and
crayfish. We have excellent beef and chicken, reared in the
surrounding farmland.” Right on cue, Jean’s weekly vegetable
delivery arrives from nearby Hermance, and he steers us out of the
service entrance to greet the farmers from Les Potagers de
an organic cooperative dedicated to local varietals and
traditional methods. They still turn their land by horse and
plough; this is how they first caught Jean’s eye, on a stroll
through the countryside.

Chef Olivier Jean of  Le Jardinier
A dish at La Jardiner

Chef Olivier Jean, left, heads up the team at farm-to-table
Le Jardinier.

As he walks us back through the kitchen, Jean enthuses about the
almost madcap fervour of his favourite producers, such as Niels
Rodin, a former financier who now farms rare citrus. “But my latest
discovery is tofu – I’ve found two women in Carouge who make seven
types of tofu. Geneva is full of surprises like this,” he says. As
he seats us at our table, he leaves us with this parting thought:
“As I see it, chefs are in service to people – we try to make
people happy with our food. But it’s the people we find – our local
farmers and producers – that help us do this. This is what makes
Geneva such a paradise for chefs. It’s all about the people.”

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The Lowdown

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